Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Gilmore Girls season three

My co-worker who has kindly loaned me her Gilmore Girls DVDs doesn't own anything beyond the fourth season, because as she sees it that's when the show ceased to be worth watching. Although I mostly enjoyed the show's third season, and thought a few of the episodes were as wonderful as anything in past years, I can definitely see the seeds of decline being planted here. For me, the biggest frustration was the same I had with the second season: I couldn't stand either of Rory's two love interests (Dean and Jess), and Lorelai's paramours were virtually nonexistent. Both Dean and Jess seem to have been disposed of, at least for the time being, by the end of the season, but their competition for Rory's affection took up so much of the show's time that it really drained the energy out of a lot of episodes. Jess is clearly an unrepentant asshole, but while it's fine to have someone to root against, it's tough when his rival for Rory's affections is the completely bland, personality-free Dean (who only becomes mildly interesting after he and Rory break up).

Although Rory is a little whiny and entitled, she's an interesting character because she's allowed to grow and make mistakes (at least more so than her mother), and the fact that the show doesn't treat her relationship with Jess as a complete error of judgment is infuriating given the way he treats her. Only at the end of the season, after he's moved to California for his thankfully never produced spin-off, does she get to express real anger and acknowledge what the audience has been able to see for the entire season. Lorelai, on the other hand, seems incapable of growing at all, and this season really shows the limits of her conflict with her parents, played out in the same predictable notes over and over again. What she needs is a love interest who can match her quip for quip, but instead she gets only a brief cameo from Max, and Billy Burke in two episodes as a character who just vanishes into the ether. The will-they-or-won't-they tension with Luke continues to simmer sort of pointlessly, and once again my knowledge of how goddamn long it's going to continue only makes it more irritating.

But lest it sound like I hated everything about this season, let me say that one of the reasons the flaws are so infuriating is because the rest is so good. The relationship between Lorelai and Rory is as rich as ever, and just watching them sit on the couch and chat for 44 minutes would make for a good episode. The dialogue remains sharp and clever, and background characters like Paris and Lane really develop in their own interesting ways this season - both of their romantic lives are more interesting than Rory's, even with their extremely minimal screen time. Part of the problem is that in a show that's just about life being lived, new obstacles and setbacks have to constantly arise for the characters to have something to do, and as time goes on the crises seem more and more contrived. The good still outweighs the bad, though, so I head on to the fourth season hoping to see the characters mature and change a bit, to stop enacting their same conflicts and maybe even learn something from their (mostly entertaining) mistakes.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Movies opening this week

Pierrot le Fou (Jean Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I like a lot of Godard's early work, but he's so prolific that I am nowhere close to having a handle on his entire erratic career (which is still going). The cinematic playfulness of his work is probably my favorite thing about it, and while this movie has a bit of that, it's also just too obtuse and full of itself to be all that much fun. Roger Ebert has an interesting reflection on being wowed by this movie when it first came out and now seeing it as sort of empty. I don't have the benefit of that much distance, but I agree on the sort of emperor-has-no-clothes aspect of this film. (Side complaint: As happened with the re-release of Antonioni's The Passenger, this is coming to town in a nice new 35mm print, and I had to review it on a DVD-R screener - for the Antonioni film it was VHS. Oh well.) Re-release opened limited June 15; in Las Vegas this week; on DVD Feb. 19

Untraceable (Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, dir. Gregory Hoblit)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
One of many things I don't understand about this movie is the blatant, awkward product placement of OnStar and Microsoft that eventually finds the killer hacking into both of their products in order to better stalk and torture the heroine. I guess it's possible that it's not paid placement, but the use of both is so obvious and forced that I don't see how it could be anything else. I suppose it just goes to show how misguided every aspect of this movie really is. Wide release

Friday, January 18, 2008

Movies opening this week

Cloverfield (Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Odette Yustman, dir. Matt Reeves)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
As much as I am usually reluctant to jump on the fanboy bandwagon, which is all about unquestioning devotion without critical analysis, I really did like this movie, and I think some of the criticism that paints it as some cynical, manipulative 9/11 cash-in is completely off-base. I didn't find the 9/11 references overbearing, and I really don't think that the movie is unduly focused on them, either; it's a deconstruction of the idea of the monster/disaster movie as much as it is a more topical allegory, and I think it works in both ways. Certain elements that are missing, including character development and a broader sense of what's going on with the monster attack, are left out by design as a consequence of the mode of storytelling, and I don't think their absence is a negative. Strangely enough, this feels far more real than Brian De Palma's Redacted, which used a similar narrative structure to tell a story based on an actual event. As ridiculous as a giant-monster attack may be, the filmmakers make the situation identifiable and oddly plausible, while De Palma manages to make actual horrors appear fake and staged. That honest sense of being right there with the characters is what makes this movie work as a story and an experience, all external references aside. Wide release

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny, dir. Julian Schnabel)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think I am just immune to the uplifting power of these movies about people overcoming adversity and triumphing in the face of incredible odds. This is admittedly much better than the typical pseudo-uplifting disease-of-the-week crap, but I wasn't moved by it in the way so many critics seem to have been. It's often pretty, and has a few powerful scenes, but ultimately it's a little repetitive, and I think has become overrated during awards season (Schnabel best director? I don't think so). Opened limited Nov. 30; in Las Vegas this week

The Savages (Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, dir. Tamara Jenkins)
This one has gotten rather lost in the awards-season crush, and although it features predictably solid acting from Linney and Hoffman (along with a good performance in a tough role from Bosco), I think it's probably justifiably being overlooked. Jenkins tackles a really tough subject - how adult children deal with caring for an aging parent in declining health - but she loses focus, dispatching the dad into a nursing home early on and spending more time on the much less interesting problems of the two kids. Both are whiny and self-absorbed, and the ways that they grow by the end of the movie feel false and contrived, like the dad dying was just a catalyst for the kids maturing, which really short-changes his story. Only the two actors keep things grounded enough to be mildly interesting. Opened limited Nov. 28; in Las Vegas this week

There Will Be Blood (Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
I've seen this movie twice now, once at an awards screening last month and once just the other day, and I'm still not quite sure how I feel about it. I definitely don't see it as the new classic that so many critics have proclaimed it as, but I can understand the enthusiasm that many people have, and I fully expect it will become a cult phenomenon that some people will obsess over (and it already sort of has; just check out this site). There's no doubt that the movie is a technical accomplishment and a massive step forward in many ways from Anderson's previous work, but for all its visual mastery, expert use of an unconventional score and powerful performances, it never really engaged me. Day-Lewis' oil mogul Daniel Plainview is clearly a horrible person, as is Dano's preacher Eli Sunday, and the battle between them really has no winner. The relationship between Plainview and his son is more interesting, but it fizzles out in the finale, which flashes forward and puts another actor in the role of the son. And although that finale has been justifiably criticized for being over the top, I kind of liked it a little bit the second time, because it felt like the only time the movie had any real emotion, or allowed itself to get beyond such a carefully controlled and aloof style. Anderson's previous movies may have been messy and self-indulgent, but I almost prefer them because they felt more personal and more real. This movie is in many ways brilliant, and yet after seeing it, I pretty much felt nothing. Opened limited Dec. 26; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cat Peoples

[Posted as a contribution to the Val Lewton blogathon.]

Coincidentally, just at the time that TCM kindly sent me a screener of their new Val Lewton documentary The Man in the Shadows (which I will probably stack on top of the TCM John Ford and Bette Davis documentary screeners that I mean to watch one day when there aren't any movies to see), along with two Lewton movies (Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie), I had Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People from Netflix sitting neglected next to my TV while I busied myself with my end-of-year catch-up. Since I haven't seen any other movies produced by the legendary horror pioneer, I don't have any wider perspective to offer to the Lewton blogathon, but I can take a look at how the two versions of Cat People compare.

Lewton's original, made in 1942 and directed by Jacques Tourneur, was his first film as a producer and seems to have set the tone for the rest of his horror work, which was marked by foreboding atmosphere and an emphasis on implied menace rather than in-your-face monsters and bogeymen. It was successful enough to spawn a 1944 sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, as well as the 1982 remake, of course. True to Lewton's reputation for moody, subtle evocations of fear, the movie relies more on hints and innuendo than action, and for a great deal of the brief (73-minute) running time, it's unclear whether anything supernatural is going on at all. Shy Serbian Irena's belief that she is under an ancient curse is treated as a possible psychological disorder, and used as a metaphor for her fear of intimacy (or her husband's and male psychiatrist's fears of female sexuality).

French actress Simone Simon makes Irena naive and introverted, the kind of person who'd be afraid of her own sexuality even if she weren't worried it would turn her into a killer jungle cat. And bland, square-jawed Kent Smith portrays Irena's beloved as the most cluelessly unsupportive husband of all time. Unable to understand Irena's angst and possible kinkiness, he notes to his co-worker (equally boring, she is of course in love with him) that he's never before in his life been unhappy, and consequently doesn't know how to process the feeling. This exotic yet demure woman baffles the all-American male, and ends up having to sacrifice herself rather than unleash her deviant sexuality on the world. Hubby and his lame co-worker find the path to their love cleared, and he doesn't exactly seem broken up about it.

Simon's Irena isn't really scary per se, although she has a certain uncontrolled menace about her, most notably when she stalks her rival in two tense sequences, one on a street and the other at an indoor pool late at night. But her husband's revulsion to her seems all the more pathetic given that she appears unlikely to ever give in to her carnal urges. By contrast, Schrader foregrounds all the sexual subtext of Tourneur's film, making his version into a perfectly excessive, indulgent example of '80s cinema (it's also got a fairly decent but very dated synth score by Giorgio Moroder). The remake is 45 minutes longer than the original, and heavy with goofy mystical back story, overexplaining where the original simply sketched out some basics (of an equally silly back story, granted).

It's also rife with nudity and sex, and adds incest and more obvious bestiality to the mix. As Irena, Nastassia Kinski never passes up an opportunity to take off her clothes, which is much appreciated but makes the movie seem like something that would have gotten a lot of late-night airplay in the early days of Cinemax (and very well may have, for all I know). Instead of the simple, pure love between Irena and her milquetoast husband, we get a more complicated relationship between the new Irena and her beau, played by a perfectly cast John Heard, perhaps the human embodiment of blandness (and even he shows off his pasty behind!). It's not just that Irena fears her animal nature might come out if they have sex (of course here it's having sex; in the original it was just kissing) - it's also that her nutso brother (played by the always nutso Malcolm McDowell) is on a killing spree and wants to sleep with her, since the only people they can have sex with without turning into giant cats are each other.

Schrader's movie ends up much sillier than the original, and goes a long way toward supporting Lewton's less-is-more philosophy on horror. The more we learn about the background of the cat people, the more we witness their transformations, the more McDowell goes on about the glories of feline empowerment, the more Heard is drawn in by Kinski's, er, animal magnetism, the less scary the movie becomes. Its attitudes toward sex are in their own way as quaint and cheesy as those in the original, but are less powerful for how explicitly they're presented. Plus, Kinski is a bit of a sourpuss (pardon the pun) compared to Simon's more playful performance. Though the plot diverges significantly from the original, there are a few sequences that are lifted wholesale (the stalking at the indoor pool, an apparent fellow cat-person branding Irena her "sister"), but stripped of their former context they just seem forced, and inconsistent with the remake's sleazier tone.

We complain about all the unnecessary horror remakes now, ones that add extra gore and sex to classic (and not-so-classic) movies, but here we can see that even 25 years ago, the same thing was happening (and from a fairly respected director). I wouldn't be surprised to see a new and even worse Cat People on the way sometime soon.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Orphanage (Belen Rueda, Roger Princep, Fernando Cayo, dir. J.A. Bayona)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is the kind of thing I often like, the low-key atmospheric horror movie, but other than a few creepy moments this movie didn't do much for me. It's stitched together from elements of other movies, but that's not even the main problem; the filmmakers just don't do much of anything with those elements. It's fairly staid and inert for a horror movie, with a weird, falsely happy ending that could have been creepy were it not delivered with such inappropriate sappiness. There's a lot that almost works, but not enough for the movie to come together as a whole. Opened limited Dec. 28; wide release this week

Redacted (Rob Devaney, Izzy Diaz, Patrick Carroll, Daniel Stewart Sherman, dir. Brian De Palma)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Although I was pretty hard on this movie, I do give it credit for trying to do something more than the high-profile Iraq-war dramas have, and I certainly always prefer an ambitious failure to a bland, risk-averse mediocrity. So kudos to De Palma for making the effort, although I'd rather see him back making ludicrous, opulent thrillers, even if few other critics share my love for The Black Dahlia. Opened limited Nov. 16; in Las Vegas this week

Starting Out in the Evening (Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Adrian Lester, dir. Andrew Wagner)
I liked Wagner's first film, The Talent Given Us, a lot, and was happy to see it go from its modest origins premiering at CineVegas to a limited theatrical release and critical acclaim. And I was happy that Wagner got the chance to get name actors and a bigger budget for this follow-up. So I'm disappointed that I can't say that I liked this movie as much as his first one, although it does have its strong points. Langella has gotten a lot of praise for his performance, which struck me as a little stiff (although that's part of the character, too), but Ambrose really didn't work for me. She give such a weirdly intense performance that it seemed like she was about to sexually ravage everyone she had a scene with; I actually spent a lot of time wondering if her character was meant to have sexual tension with the female magazine editor played by Jessica Hecht, and if there was some lesbian subtext I was supposed to pick up on. But I think it was just poor acting choices. The relationship between Ambrose's grad student and Langella's aging writer, especially its romantic elements (which were not imagined subtext on my part), never felt real to me, nor the relationship between the writer's daughter and her old flame. Only the parent-child interactions between Langella and Taylor had much spark; the rest was too much overwrought indie preciousness, exactly the kind of thing Wagner avoided in the past. Opened limited Nov. 23; in Las Vegas this week

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Back to the library

This past summer, the Clark County Library sponsored a "Critic's Choice" series with some local film critics choosing favorite movies to present. I introduced John Sayles' Lone Star, and it seemed to go well. Apparently, the library folks liked the result, because this month the series returns, with a focus on overlooked films of 2007. I'll be presenting two films this time around: Joey Lauren Adams' Come Early Morning, which is technically a 2006 release but played briefly in Vegas in January 2007; and Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan, which has gotten far too little attention at year-end list-making time. If you're in Vegas, you can see me ramble about these movies on January 8 (Come Early Morning) and January 22 (Black Snake Moan), both at 7 p.m., at the Clark County Library at Flamingo and Maryland Parkway.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Movies opening this week

One Missed Call (Shannyn Sossamon, Edward Burns, Ana Claudia Talancon, dir. Eric Valette)
I don't even think the original Japanese version of this film is very well-respected, despite being directed by Takashi Miike, and that's about the only hope there could be for something decent in an American remake. This is sloppy, cheapo filmmaking, with hilarious bad dialogue that features characters constantly telling each other who and what things are (Burns' character walks around saying "I'm a cop" to anyone who will listen, but that doesn't make Burns any more believable as a detective). Some of the most blatantly contrived jump moments in any horror movie, a completely incoherent story with a nonsensical ending and not even the buckets of gore that an R rating could provide (it's PG-13). It is sort of amusingly awful at times, but with so many good movies in theaters right now, I can't imagine why anyone would bother to waste their time. Wide release

Revolver (Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Vincent Pastore, Andre Benjamin, dir. Guy Ritchie)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Along with a shitty mainstream horror movie, we get a shitty British import with high-minded artistic pretensions. So it's shit at both ends of the spectrum this week, really. It's sort of amazing this movie made it to the U.S. at all, given how long ago it was released in Britain and how savage the reviews have been. Maybe that's the power of being married to a huge pop star (it's the same force that got Kevin Federline's album released). There might be a certain appealing craziness to this movie (as championed by Keith Uhlich and Matt Zoller Seitz), but I couldn't find it amid the bullshit aphorisms and obtuse plotting. Opened limited Dec. 7; in Las Vegas this week

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Crunching the numbers

Although like most critics and culture-obsessives I have always been a fan of lists, 2007 was the first year that I kept a running tally of all the movies I saw. While not as detailed as the lists maintained by my sometime Las Vegas Weekly colleague Mike D'Angelo (check out his 2007 list here), it's still a good way to quickly see how I spent my movie-watching time this year. I found this list very useful when making my year-end picks, and I plan to make another one for next year (although I am far from the comprehensive documentation practiced by Newsweek's David Ansen). For my own amusement more than anything else, I thought I'd break down the numbers into some possibly interesting or illuminating categories on the ways I watched movies in 2007. Whether this will be of interest to anyone else, I have no idea.

Number of movies (feature-length, watched in full) I saw in 2007: 258
Number that were first released theatrically in the U.S. in 2007: 173
Number seen in theaters: 141
Number seen at film festivals: 22
Number seen at regular commercial showings with paying audiences: 11
Number seen on DVD: 100
Number seen from Netflix: 33
Number seen on VHS: 6
Number that I had already seen at least once before all the way through: 9